In an era dubbed the “Disinformation Age” filled with bots, trolls, and politically charged accusations of fake news and conspiracy theories, the role of a fact-checker is a vital if sometimes thankless one. When elections approach, the need for verifying claims becomes all the more acute. And during a health crisis such as the current pandemic, countering disinformation is literally a matter of life or death.
Consider the case of local fact-checking organization Bolivia Verifica. As Bolivia prepared for presidential elections last year, COVID-19 struck. The fact-checking organization found itself having to address charged, rapid-fire news and information on several fronts.
“Much of the disinformation that circulated through social media was aimed at incentivizing chaos and generating hatred among Bolivians,” said Renan Estenssoro, a founder and Director at the Fundación para el Periodismo that created Bolivia Verifica, who spoke about the country’s extreme difficulties leading up to and even after the elections. In addition, notes Estenssoro, “Disinformation about COVID-19 is doing a lot of damage.”
A relatively new, politically neutral fact-checking organization, Bolivia Verifica was already engaging in quality investigative journalist processes yet needed the strategy and digital footprint to reach more people with their findings. Dexis helped address this need by piloting the techniques of Bravo Group, a leading commercial strategic communications firm, with Bolivia Verifica to use data and social media more strategically. This partnership contributed to an organizational mindset shift, resulting in a 700% increase in Bolivia Verifica’s Facebook followers in only a few short months.
During this critical moment of rampant disinformation in Bolivia, Dexis and Bravo Group worked hand in hand with Bolivia Verifica staff and leadership to improve the local organization’s ability to make strategic decisions and capacity to deliver content in ways that meet audiences where they are.
Bolivia Verifica rapidly adopted the power of data-driven decision making at their organization, such as using insights from Google Analytics and Facebook Analytics to determine what content to post and when. Data showing that a high percentage of online visitors accessed Bolivia Verifica’s website via cellphones also led the organization to begin optimizing content for mobile devices.
In addition, Bolivia Verifica learned the fundamentals of A/B testing—creating two unique pieces of content, releasing them simultaneously, comparing the data generated by each, and then concentrating on the approach to which their desired audience responded.
Dexis and Bravo Group also assisted Bolivia Verifica in running two paid Facebook campaigns—one to increase the number of Facebook followers and a reach campaign to target Bolivians who had not previously interacted with them via a branded ad. This increased the number of Bolivians following Bolivia Verifica on Facebook from around 6,500 to over 35,000, all at relatively low cost.
Sending the right message at the right time is just as important as targeting the right audience. Bolivia Verifica learned to review data on their social media posts, sharing content online at different times to more effectively reach audiences. Bolivia Verifica also began to look beyond fact checks and started creating informational and educational content, improving its presentations, and engaging in targeted online advertising. With their newly honed audience-focused mentality, Bolivia Verifica both refined their podcasts and, noting that their followers tended to prefer videos, began repurposing audio content into an animated newscast.
In addition, Bolivia Verifica formally registered with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), becoming the only organization in Bolivia that is a member. Achieving IFCN signatory ensures the organization adheres to IFCN’s Code of Principles, including non-partisanship and transparency. The status builds the organization’s credibility, allows them to apply for new grants, offers additional training, and opens doors to partnerships with major tech companies.
As this project showed, pairing the right technical assistance with a committed, mission-driven NGO can lead to significant change. In short order, Bolivia Verifica moved beyond simply pursing growth and embraced its role as a digital-first organization to operate more effectively in social media spaces. It increased its raw numbers of followers and the organization’s reach through its willingness to experiment with content and by adapting based on real-time data. Yet one thing that did not change was its mission—to be the voice of truth in Bolivia.
“Bolivia needs a responsible and trustworthy medium that disseminates quality information to stop disinformation,” stresses Estenssoro. “We want to continue growing as an organization and become a benchmark in Latin America for the verification of information and the fight against disinformation.”
Jennifer Divis is a Technical Advisor at Dexis, where she provides strategic direction for Dexis’ Implementation & Management Solutions division.
Photo by GASTON BRITO / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance